Helen Baron heads to Barbados seeking an answer to winter woes
Of all the terrors I’ve experienced since having children, two strike me as particularly cruel: the fear of winter and the fear of long-haul flights. The reason, as is probably self-evident, is that these fears are co-dependent and mutually reinforcing: the easing of one entails the enabling of the other.When winter charges in, life gets harder. When you can’t go outside without getting drenched or frostbitten or blown into the road, you stay home instead. At first you might rejoice in the novelty of being cosy and comfortable with little ones by your side. You might make popcorn and enjoy movie afternoons snuggled on the sofa together. You might finally build that Lego spaceship they got for Christmas, or practise the alphabet, or assume your best Blue Peter presenter voice and show them how to craft a horse puppet from an old sock.
By day three, however, there’s popcorn under the sofa, the crafts drawer is chaos and some formulaic CGI Dr Seuss adaptation is blaring from the telly for the tenth time, unbearably unwatched. The kids are delirious with boredom and so are you. You crave the outside, but the weather won’t let up for months. Even if the sun does deign to make an appearance, it takes an hour to suit everyone up against the still-raging cold, their mittens won’t stay on and the playground remains one giant, hateful puddle.
The answer, if you’re lucky, is a holiday: a winter sun to top up your vitamin D and remind you of the pleasures of the open air. A week or two somewhere hot and beautiful will keep the wolves of winter misery at bay… right?
Then you remember where you live: in Britain, most fortunate island: perfectly placed to make a reliable winter sun all but impossible for those of us with preschool-age kids and an ethical belief that it’s not fair to inflict them on fellow airline passengers. My girls won’t stay still long enough for me to tie a shoelace. Asking them to let me share the sofa can provoke howls of fury and misbegotten grief. How can I transport them to the other side of the world without my brain literally exploding with stress and exhaustion?
But not this year! This year my partner and I decide that of these great, imposing terrors, one must be the lesser. A long-haul flight with a couple of preschoolers cannot, however tiring, be as bad as a British winter completely unleavened by something – or more precisely somewhere – lighter, brighter and more beautiful.
So we look at our options – where can we go that offers (a) reliably great weather, (b) family-friendly things to do and (c) a direct flight with a duration less than nine hours?
The answer is… not many places. Everywhere with serious sun in January or February (plus beautiful beaches and no ongoing war or murder epidemic) is ten or more hours away. Add to the list of requirements my desire to squeeze in some surfing and the list shrinks smaller. In the end, only one destination appears to tick all the boxes: Barbados.
We weren’t sure at first. Barbados seemed aimed at older generations. Many of the hotels and private villas we looked at online – even some very famous and nominally luxurious ones – left a lot to be desired in terms of decor and design. And can you actually surf in Barbados? Or is it the kind of place where a decent swell arrives once every two years during a hurricane and you have to be towed out to it by jet ski?
Not that it mattered in the end. The fear of flying for longer than a full working day with a couple of small sociopaths did not diminish. We chose a hotel, booked flights and took a deep, deep breath.
Spoiler alert: it all worked out.
We just about made it through the flights. Things got very hairy in the final thirty minutes outbound, and our older daughter didn’t sleep for about 36 consecutive hours coming back. But it was doable, even with kids as active and intractable as ours. And what came between made it very, very worthwhile.
The first thing to say is that Barbados itself is sublime. It’s a small island, so you can get around it super easy in a hire car, and they drive on the left, so there’s not even that initial period of awkward adjustment. It’s also well-maintained in relation to some of its neighbours, with clean streets, clear signposting and lots of shops and services. Admittedly, it’s highly developed: no vast tracts of untouched jungle here.
The beaches – all of which are public by law – are numerous, pristine and often world-beatingly beautiful. The general atmosphere is upbeat and the people are incredibly friendly – in fact, there’s a sense (confirmed to us by several locals) that the economic inequalities here are less pronounced than on other Caribbean islands, which makes for lower rates of crime and social unrest. Everyone also seems to love kids, so you don’t have to apologise as much as you might elsewhere. Our overall impression was of general convenience and resounding good vibes.
Speaking of good vibes, we also turned out to be extremely fortunate in our choice of hotel.
We stayed at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, one of the oldest resorts on the island, positioned in a sweet spot halfway up the western (or ‘platinum’) coast.
The Fairmont was built before regulations were introduced prohibiting development too close to the beach, so it occupies an enviable spot right on the sand. We stayed in a beachfront suite: 650 square feet of newly refurbished space with a superking bed for us, double sofa-bed for the kids and a private terrace overlooking the strand. Waking each morning to the pale gleam of the sun on the sea was an experience bettered only by viewing the same panorama at dusk, when the ebbing light swept the water with deepening shades of gold and rose. Our littles walked the dimming sand collecting fragments of coral and shell while we sipped margaritas and gazed in utter contentment. It did us the world of good.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, following recent renovations, the Fairmont is probably the most stylish and luxurious hotel on the island. Residents of beachfront suites benefit from a dedicated butler service, all manner of extra treats – the children loved the daily delivery of macaroons, while we grown-ups appreciated the free wi-fi and amazing buffet breakfasts – and, of course, access to the beach so direct it’s not even a stone’s throw.
There’s also an exquisite garden teeming with palms and green monkeys, plus tennis courts, a beach club offering free watersports and turtle tours, three restaurants and a perfectly-sized pool, where our elder daughter learned to swim unaided for the first time. We heard that they’re planning to introduce a kids club, which would make the whole thing even more perfect, if that’s possible. And right next door – reachable via a short walk up the beach – is the Lone Star restaurant, one of the best on the island, where you can dine while your little ones play on the sand.
The Fairmont is ideally situated for exploring further afield. On some days, we drove 20 minutes south to the buzzing St Lawrence Gap for surf sessions with the brilliant Barry’s Surf team at Dover Beach (shout out to Andrew and Matt, who were only too happy to let our three-year-old sit and chat to them for ages outside the surf shack). As a side note for those of a similar persuasion, it turns out the surfing in Barbados is pretty perfect.
Come dinnertime, another five minutes took us to the happy crowds of Oistins fish fry: think top-notch, marine-centred street food while locals bang out karaoke.
Back north and closer to the Fairmont there was luxury shopping at the Limegrove mall and the world-famous Sandy Lane golf course, while we also enjoyed a day lounging at the Boatyard in Bridgetown (the island’s capital), with its beach-party vibe, sea-trampolines and jetty-jumping. We discovered some great cafes and restaurants on the picturesque Hastings boardwalk – notably the Artsplash Centre, with its huge children’s playground, and the Blue Pineapple, with some amazing veggie options and killer cocktails. Best of all, though, was the boat ride we took on our penultimate morning, organised by the hotel’s watersports team, which saw us tour the insanely picturesque coastline with a local captain – he showed us where Simon Cowell stays – before swimming with wild sea turtles in crystalline waters.
Memories like that don’t fade. And they definitely helped us to stay positive on the red-eye flight home…
Rates for the Fairmont start from $468 and are per room, per night, based on double occupancy in a Luxury Oceanfront inclusive of BB, Fast Track and once per stay afternoon tea